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Terrorism Havens: Lebanon

Updated: May 2007

Is Lebanon a haven for terrorists?

Yes. Terrorist organizations operating in Lebanon include the radical Shiite militia Hezbollah, several Palestinian groups—Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command—as well as the Abu Nidal Organization, al-Jihad, Asbat al-Ansar, the Japanese Red Army, and some local radical Sunni Muslim organizations. Another militant group, Fatah al-Islam, which surfaced in 2006, has become one of the country's main security threats and was involved in a deadly clash with Lebanese troops in May 2007. Moreover, since the end of its devastating fifteen year civil war in 1990, Lebanon—a tiny, mountainous Arab state bordered by Israel, Syria, and the Mediterranean Sea—had, until 2005, been largely controlled by Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism.

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What is the most powerful terrorist group in Lebanon?

Hezbollah, which operates with the approval of Syria and receives massive weapons shipments and military training from its founders in Iran. It is based principally in Beirut, and effectively controls Lebanon's Shiite-dominated south, and the Bekaa Valley, allowing terrorists to move around these regions with relative impunity. U.S. officials have urged Lebanon and Syria to rein in the group. In July 2006, Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel, including the abduction of two Israeli soldiers at a border station, provoked a massive Israeli military response. Hezbollah responded by launching rockets into northern Israel. The violence came on the heels of an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza Strip. Israel's response put pressure on the Lebanese government, highlighting both the conflicting interests of Hezbollah and Lebanon, and Lebanon's inability to disarm the group

Hezbollah is also an effective political party in Lebanon and holds twenty-three of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament. Since 2000, when it successfully drove Israeli troops from a forty kilometer “security zone” in southern Lebanon after twenty-two years of occupation, Hezbollah has increasingly asserted its influence among Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims—the country’s largest religious group—by establishing social programs, hospitals, and schools.

How did Lebanon come to be controlled by Syria?

After gaining independence from French control in 1944, Lebanon grew into a thriving trade and financial center, and its political system—based on power-sharing among religious groups—was hailed as a model of multiethnic cooperation. But in 1975, a civil war broke out between Lebanon’s Muslim majority and its ruling Maronite Christian elite that left the country vulnerable to manipulation by neighboring states and terrorist groups.

Many Syrians have long considered Lebanon rightfully part of “greater Syria,” and in 1976, the Arab League supported a Syrian military intervention after attempts by Western and Arab countries to mediate Lebanon’s civil war failed. Tens of thousands of Syrian troops marched into Lebanon and eventually joined the Sunni-Palestinian coalition in its fight against the Maronite Christians. In 1991, Syria’s control of Lebanon was cemented by the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination, which lasted until the Syrians withdrew their troops from Lebanon in 2005.

Why were Syrian troops forced out of Lebanon?

Because of international pressure and massive protests inside Lebanon after the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, just two months later Syria announced it was withdrawing its troops, as requested by the United Nations. A UN report implicated Syria in the murder, namely prominent members of President Bashar Assad’s inner circle, and accused the Syrians of interfering with the investigation. Just days after the preliminary report was released in October, the United Nations passed a resolution requiring Syrian cooperation with the ongoing investigation of Hariri’s death.

Have terrorists attacked Americans in Lebanon?

Yes. During the 1980s, Hezbollah repeatedly targeted Americans. In 1983 and 1984, more than 250 Americans were killed in suicide bombing attacks on a U.S. Marine barracks, the U.S. embassy, and the U.S. embassy annex in Lebanon. A U.S. Navy diver was shot during the 1985 terrorist hijacking of TWA flight 847 in Beirut, and terrorists kidnapped and held hostage several Americans in Lebanon during the 1980s.

These attacks came after the United States sent troops to Lebanon in 1982 in an attempt to quiet tensions following the Israeli invasion and to help promote nation-building. Hezbollah was blamed for carrying out the attacks under the direction of its sponsor, the Islamist, anti-American Iranian regime led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Following the 1983-84 suicide bombings, the Reagan administration withdrew U.S. troops from Lebanon.

How did Lebanon become a haven for terrorists?

Armed Palestinian groups began launching attacks against Israel from Lebanon following the Six-Day War in 1967. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in refugee camps in Lebanon, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) based itself in the country after being expelled from Jordan in 1970.

The outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975 caused the number of armed groups operating in the country to skyrocket. Among them was a radical Shiite militia called the Lebanese Resistance Detachments (known by its Arabic acronym, Amal), which forged an alliance with Khomeini’s Shiite regime after Khomeini came to power through the 1979 Iranian revolution. In 1982, Iran created the Hezbollah militia to fight Israeli forces, which had invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLO’s Lebanese base and install a pro-Israel Maronite regime in Beirut.

What has the Lebanese government done to crack down on terrorists?

Not much. The Lebanese government has cooperated in some international counterterrorism measures and has arrested al-Qaeda members. But it backed Hezbollah’s 1990s attacks on Israel and refuses to interfere with the group’s ongoing attacks against Israeli troops in the disputed border region known as Shebaa Farms. (Lebanon considers Shebaa Farms to be Lebanese territory under Israeli occupation, but the United Nations considers it to be a part of Syria and says that Israel has withdrawn completely from Lebanon .)

Lebanon has also refused U.S.demands to turn over Lebanese terrorists involved in the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 and in the abduction, torture, and murder of U.S.hostages from 1984 to 1991. At the same time, the regime has only limited influence over Hezbollah and Palestinian militants. Moreover, it lacks control of some of Beirut and of the lawless, drug-ridden Bekaa Valley, as well as of many Palestinian refugee camps and the southern border region.